Can the man from Nazareth resurrect qualification hopes?

Israel's goalkeeper David Aouate will be tested by Russia's crosses. But, he tells Steve Tongue in Tel Aviv, England can rely on him in an hour of need
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The Independent Online

At the risk of damaging morale throughout the land, it is an image that journalistic objectivity demands should be recalled. Wembley, Saturday 8 September; England, leading Israel by two goals to nil, win a corner that Steven Gerrard swings over. The visiting goalkeeper, David "Dudu" Aouate, makes a tentative move towards it, then bumps into the back of a stationary Michael Owen and is left stranded as Micah Richards rises to head his first international goal into an empty net.

Aouate, convinced that he has been fouled, chases the Dutch referee up the pitch and adds the insult of yellow card to imagined injury, and a suspension ruling him out of the defeat by Croatia that finally ends Israel's hopes of qualification for the European Championship finals.

But Aouate, more than anyone, is the player on whom England, as well as Israel, now depend to hold Russia at bay in Tel Aviv today. If the man from Nazareth can keep a clean sheet, England's fading hopes of making it to next summer's tournament will be dramatically resurrected. Once Guus Hiddink's team, whom their manager has committed to sustained attack, start putting over some crosses, English hearts will be in mouths.

Not that the Israeli keeper is a complete liability. Two Spanish clubs, Racing Santander and now Deportivo La Coruña, have been delighted with his performances over the last four seasons in the less physical world of La Liga. The Sky Sports Spanish expert and former Northern Ireland international Gerry Armstrong says: "He's a decent keeper who makes good reflex saves, but I worry about him on crosses. He comes out and, if he gets any sort of contact from an attacker, he goes down clutching his head or face and looks to the referee to give him the decision. In Spanish football you get those type of decisions but in international football you tend not to so much."

Aouate claims to have attracted Premier League interest, although, like Jens Lehmann, he would surely find the English game too vigorous for his taste. "It's obvious that referees tend to whistle much less for challenges on the goalkeeper in England," he has said. "It's tough there." He is also less interested in helping England out of their hole, which he believes to be self-dug, than moving Israel up the Fifa rankings (they are currently 37th) before the forthcoming World Cup draw.

"My aim is to get the result for our national team and our fans. So being a hero in England is not of concern to me. The English don't trust us. People in England are saying we haven't beaten a big team for a long time but the English should have relied on themselves. They're a big enough team to beat at the Euros without needing to ask a favour of us."

An extra incentive is that he will be wearing the captain's armband, as in the group match against Macedonia, now that Liverpool's Yossi Benayoun is injured. Aged 30, Aouate is one of the most senior players, whose appearances would have been more frequent were it not for a long-standing rivalry with the current No 2, Nir Davidovich.

When both were at Maccabi Haifa as youngsters, it was Aouate who moved on, winning the league championship with Hapoel Haifa before returning to Maccabi. As first choice there, he played against Manchester United in the Champions League, conceding five goals at Old Trafford before playing in a famous 3-0 victory in the return game when Sir Alex Ferguson fielded a weakened team.

At Santander, Aouate encountered controversy by playing on Yom Kippur, which led to one politician calling for him to be dropped from the national team. "I don't think anyone has the right to judge me," Aouate said at the time.

This evening, like it or not, he will find the whole of England doing just that.

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